A Rough Guide to Michael W. Smith, Celebrity Theatre's Weirdest Celebrity
Nirvana means absolutely nothing to me. I'm sorry to have to be so blunt, but that's the only way to put it. As much as I enjoy the songs, and as much as I can intellectually recognize the influence he had on the next decade of popular music, Kurt Cobain did not ever take up residence in my conscience, or my rock-star fantasy life, or my angsty teen self-identity, because I did not live in America. I lived in CCM America.
That's Contemporary Christian Music — the genre in which Michael W. Smith, who is coming to Celebrity Theatre on January 11, is unspeakably famous. If you were never a citizen of CCM America, you might know him only as an early '90s one-hit wonder. He was — "Place in This World" was one of the biggest songs of 1991, which puts him about even with Wilson Phillips on the All-Time Billboard Top 1 Million.
But imagine an alternate history in which, after 1991, Wilson Phillips continued to be one of the biggest stars in a giant and mostly separatist subculture and you'll get most of the way to CCM America.
While the world was doing its best to convince itself that grunge was inherently more thoughtful and less disposable than hair metal, those of us who lived in this Christian Bookstore Alternate Universe had our own totally separate cultural touchstones. If you don't know who Michael W. Smith was — and who he is now — here's a rough map of CCM America, circa 1995.
Michael W. Smith: Amy Grant — the Beatles of CCM through the '80s — had an enormous crossover hit with the unflinchingly secular (and suspiciously chaste, in hindsight) "Baby Baby." This worried CCM fans, who long had since taken to a kremlinology that involved counting mentions of the word Jesus to figure out which artists and bands were strong in the faith and which ones weren't.
"Place in This World" was also an enormous crossover hit — number six on Billboard's Hot 100 — and actually was co-written by Amy Grant. But because it's about "looking for a reason" and "needing your[ or maybe Your] light," and probably also because he never had another secular hit like it, Michael W. Smith soldiered on as a full-fledged citizen of CCM America.
Those two songs form the central question of CCM in the '90s, one artists would eventually ask over and over again in song: Do you go mainstream? Do you try to replace God with easily discernible pronouns? Or do you leave in the altar calls and work entirely within the Christian bookstore market?
Eventually this would get really, really tiresome.
Audio Adrenaline: If you're a secular pop-rock or pop-punk band, the promised land of crossover success is school proms and graduations — think "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" or basically any hair-metal power ballad. If you're a CCM band, the equivalent space is churches, private schools, and youth groups.
Both crossovers have their ingredients — if a school-function hit has to wear its heart on its sleeve and reach for maximum nostalgia or melancholy, a church song has to have a big, high-concept hook and needs to be easy to sing in a large group, off an overhead projector. Audio Adrenaline — who, like several bands on this list, began as a weird late-'80s hip-hop thing and later buried that origin as deeply as they could — nailed the mix with "Big House," which is about a Heaven of big houses and yards "where we can play football."
Say what you will about what that says re: their audience's exurban idea of Heaven.
Newsboys: I don't know what the public school equivalent of "Shine" was, so you'll have to tell me: What did they play over and over at all of your trips to the skating rink? The Newsboys toured constantly, changed their sound every album — dance-y pop in 1994, post-grunge in 1996, adult contemporary in 1998, unmitigated disco in 1999 — and were unassailably Christian, in the can-I-play-this-song-to-my-pastor sense.
But while their Aughts incarnation went full-on worship album, they were pretty subversive all through the '90s, mixing in songs about doubt and ecumenism and loving just about everybody among the youth group sing-alongs. I have come only recently to the sad conclusion that I will never be able to find those sing-alongs — the one beginning "Isabelle is a belly-dancer," or the one about breakfast not being served in Hell) in a karaoke bar.
DC Talk: If you were an evangelical in 1995, or just in the Devotional Bible section of a Walmart, this song was absolutely impossible to avoid.
One not immediately apparent reason people have trouble taking mainstream CCM bands seriously — wrongly, I think — is that it's clear from a lot of their career paths that making music is not the most important thing in their life, the thing through which they are self-actualized.
It's clear because the kind of music they make often has as much to do with secular trends as it does their own influences. DC Talk began their career in the late '80s as full-on, extremely dated-sounding rappers. In 1992, they went New Jack. In 1994, with grunge having happened, they made an abrupt left turn and released "Jesus Freak," which is both the CCM "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and really transparently trying to be the CCM "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Likewise, their next and final album, Supernatural, sounds much more like 1998 than it does Jesus Freak. (It also featured a salvo in the hey-don't-water-down-your-lyrics-with-pronouns war with a very expensive-looking video, "My Friend (So Long).") It doesn't make for great music, necessarily, but I've never understood the idea that this chameleonism is dishonest — it follows directly from their stated goal, which is basically ministry disguised as pop music.
Jars of Clay: Talk and Jars of Clay coexisted in a bunch of CD wallets, but they achieved their mid-'90s fame very differently — Jars of Clay was the epitome of the pronoun-y crossover success, an alternative version of the Amy Grant maneuver that had caused so much hand-wringing in the late '80s.
"Flood," which you probably heard mixed in with secular post-grunge in 1995, has a borderline Christian shibboleth ("But if I can't swim after 40 days") and a chorus that people could reasonably, if a little co-dependently, dedicate to their significant other: Lift me up when I'm drowning / I'm weak and I'm dying / I need you to hold me / Keep me from drowning again.
"Jars of Clay" is itself both an earthy, post-grunge band name and a phrase plucked from the NIV Bible, the official translation of people who listen to Christian hits radio. It worked: few Christian (and Christian-label) bands have ever floated so effortlessly between the Dove Awards and the Grammy Awards.
Michael W. Smith certainly hasn't — he hasn't been famous in the secular market since he looked unnervingly like George Michael. But don't be surprised when he fills Celebrity Theatre full of people who think George Michael used to look unnervingly like him.
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